With the growing recognition of the global climate emergency (see also), attention is being increasingly focused on policies to tackle global warming.
In the October version of its journal, Fiscal Monitor, the IMF argues that carbon taxes can play a major part in meeting the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or earlier.
As the blog accompanying the journal states:
Global warming has become a clear and present threat. Actions and commitments to date have fallen short. The longer we wait, the greater the loss of life and damage to the world economy. Finance ministers must play a central role to champion and implement fiscal policies to curb climate change. To do so, they should reshape the tax system and fiscal policies to discourage carbon emissions from coal and other polluting fossil fuels.
The effect of a carbon tax on production
The argument is that carbon emissions represent a massive negative externality, where the costs are borne largely by people other than the emitters. Taxes can internalise these externalities. The effect would be to raise the price of carbon-emitting activities and reduce the quantity consumed and hence produced.
The diagram illustrates the argument. It takes the case of carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity generation in a large country. To keep the analysis simple, it is assumed that all electricity in the country is generated from coal-fired power stations and that there are many such power stations, making the market perfectly competitive.
It is assumed that all the benefits from electricity production accrue solely to the consumers of electricity (i.e. there are no external benefits from consumption). Marginal private and marginal social benefits of the production of electricity are thus the same (MPB = MSB). The curve slopes downwards because, with a downward-sloping demand for electricity, higher output results in a lower marginal benefit (diminishing marginal utility).
Competitive market forces, with producers and consumers responding only to private costs and benefits, will result in a market equilibrium at point a in the diagram: i.e. where demand equals supply. The market equilibrium price is P0 while the market equilibrium quantity is Q0. However the presence of external costs in production means that MSC > MPC. In other words, MEC = b – a.
The socially optimal output would be Q* where P = MSB = MSC, achieved at the socially optimal price of P*. This is illustrated at point d and clearly shows how external costs of production in a perfectly competitive market result in overproduction: i.e. Q0 > Q*. From society’s point of view, too much electricity is being produced and consumed.
If a carbon tax of d – c is imposed on the electricity producers, it will now be in producers’ interests to produce at Q*, where their new private marginal costs (including tax) equals their marginal private benefit.
Assessing the benefits of carbon taxes
The diagram shows the direct effect on production of electricity. With widespread carbon taxes, there would be similar direct effects on other industries that emit carbon, and also on consumers, faced with higher fuel prices. In the UK, for example, there are currently higher taxes on high-emissions vehicles than on low-emissions ones.
However, there are other effects of carbon taxes which contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions over the longer term. First, firms will have an incentive to invest in green energy production, such as wind, solar and hydro. Second, it will encourage R&D in green energy technology. Third, consumers will have an incentive to use less electricity by investing in more efficient appliances and home insulation and making an effort to turn off lights, the TV, computers and so on.
People may object to paying more for electricity, gas and motor fuel, but the tax revenues could be invested in cheaper clean public transport, home insulation and public services generally, such as health and education. This could be part of a policy of redistribution, with the tax revenues being spent on alleviating poverty. Alternatively, other taxes could be cut.
The IMF estimates that to restrict global warming to 2°C (a target seen as too modest by many environmentalists), large emitting countries ‘should introduce a carbon tax set to rise quickly to $75 a ton in 2030’.
This would mean household electric bills would go up by 43 per cent cumulatively over the next decade on average – more in countries that still rely heavily on coal in electricity generation, less elsewhere. Gasoline would cost 14 percent more on average.
It gives the example of Sweden, which has a carbon tax of $127 per ton. This has resulted in a 25% reduction in emissions since 1995, while the economy has expanded 75% since then.
Limits of carbon taxes
Although carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming, there are problems with their use.
First, it may be politically popular for governments not to impose them, or raise them, with politicians arguing that they are keen to help ‘struggling motorists’ or poor people ‘struggling to keep their homes warm’. In the UK, successive governments year after year have chosen not to raise road fuel taxes, despite a Fuel Price Escalator (replaced in 2011 by a Fuel Duty Stabiliser) designed to raise fuel taxes each year by more than inflation. Also, governments fear that higher energy prices would raise costs for their country’s industries, thereby damaging exports.
Second, it is difficult to measure the marginal external costs of CO2 emissions, which gives ammunition to those arguing to keep taxes low. In such cases it may be prudent, if politically possible, to set carbon taxes quite high.
Third, they should not be seen as a sufficient policy on their own, but as just part of the solution to global warming. Legislation to prevent high emissions can be another powerful tool to prevent activities that have high carbon emissions. Examples include banning high-emission vehicles; a requirement for coal-fired power stations and carbon emitting factories to install CO2 scrubbers (filters); and tougher planning regulations for factories that emit carbon. Education to encourage people to cut their own personal use of fossil fuels is another powerful means of influencing behaviour.
A cap-and-trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme would be an alternative means of cutting carbon efficiently. It involves setting quotas for emissions and allowing firms which manage to cut emissions to sell their surplus permits to less efficient firms. This puts a price pressure on firms to be more efficient. But the quotas (the ‘cap’) must be sufficiently tight if emissions are going to be cut to desired levels.
But, despite being just one possible policy, carbon taxes can make a significant contribution to combatting global warming.
- Fiscal Policies to Curb Climate Change
IMF blog, Vitor Gaspar, Paolo Mauro, Ian Parry and Catherine Pattillo (10/10/19)
- Energy bills will have to rise sharply to avoid climate crisis, says IMF
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (10/10/19)
- Huge global carbon tax hike needed in next 10 years to head off climate disaster, says IMF
Independent, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (11/10/19)
- World urgently needs to quicken steps to reduce global warming – IMF
Reuters, Lindsay Dunsmuir (10/10/19)
- The Case for a Goldilocks Carbon Tax
Forbes, Roger Pielke (13/9/19)
- The world needs a massive carbon tax in just 10 years to limit climate change, IMF says
Washington Post, Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman (10/10/19)
- People like the idea of a carbon tax – if the money is put to good use
New Scientist, Michael Le Page (18/9/19)
- The IMF thinks carbon taxes will stop the climate crisis. That’s a terrible idea.
The Guardian, Kate Aronoff (12/10/19)
- Firms ignoring climate crisis will go bankrupt, says Mark Carney
The Guardian, Damian Carrington (13/10/19)
- How central banks can tackle climate change
Financial Times, The editorial board (31/10/19)
- World Economic Forum: Climate change action needed to avoid societal ‘collapse’ says minister
The National, UAE, Anna Zacharias (3/11/19)
- Riots and trade wars: Why carbon taxes will not solve climate crisis
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 1)
- The plethora of effective alternatives to carbon pricing
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 2)
- Are these the real reasons why Big Oil wants a carbon tax?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 3)
- Do we need carbon taxes in an era of cheap renewables?
Recharge, Leigh Collins (31/10/19) (Part 4)
- How to Mitigate Climate Change
IMF Fiscal Monitor, Ian Parry (team leader), Thomas Baunsgaard, William Gbohoui, Raphael Lam, Victor Mylonas, Mehdi Raissi, Alpa Shah and Baoping Shang (October 2019)
- Draw a diagram to show how subsidies can lead to the optimum output of green energy.
- What are the political problems in introducing or raising carbon taxes? Examine possible solutions to these problems
- Choose two policies for reducing carbon emissions other than using carbon taxes? Compare their effectiveness with carbon taxes.
- How is game theory relevant to getting international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Why is there likely to be a prisoners’ dilemma problem in reaching and sticking to such agreements? How might the problem of a prisoners’ dilemma be overcome in such circumstances?
There has been much criticism of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s most significant cap-and-trade (tradable permits) scheme for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The main criticism is that the scheme has failed to make significant cuts in pollution. The cap was so loose in the first phase (2005–07) that by the end of this period, carbon was trading for as little as €0.02 per tonne. Although the cap on emissions was tightened by 7 per cent for phase 2 (2008–12) (see Economics, 7th ed, Box 12.5), causing the carbon price to rise to about €30.00 per tonne by mid 2009, since then the price has fallen as industry has cut output in response to the recession. By February 2010, the carbon price was around €12.50 per tonne (see the Guardian article Carbon price falls to new low). For carbon price data see the European Climate Change site.
The experience of the ETS has resulted in many people in the USA and elsewhere calling for the use of carbon taxes rather than cap and trade as the best means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Others have called for a mix of measures. In the US Senate, three senators are seeking to overturn cap-and-trade proposals and take a sector-by-sector approach to cutting emissions.
But increasingly the evidence, supported by economic argument, is that cap and trade does work – or can be made to work – and that it is a better policy tool than carbon taxes. The following articles look at cap and trade and assess whether it really is the best alternative.
Buying off the big polluters looks bad but it works Sunday Times, Charles Clover (28/2/10)
Economists hail EU emissions trading success BusinessGreen, James Murray (15/2/10)
EU study plumps for cap & trade in ship carbon carbonpositive (17/2/10)
European carbon trading labelled ‘model for the world’ Ecologist (1/3/10)
Cap and Trade vs Carbon Tax – 6 Myths Busted Cleantech Blog (26/2/10)
Senators seen ditching cap and trade in new bill Reuters, Russell Blinch (27/2/10)
Senators to propose abandoning cap-and-trade Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson (27/2/10)
U.S. Senate may scrap Cap and Trade in exchange for Cap and Dividend The Energy Collective, Chris Schultz (27/2/10)
Emissions Trading Wikipedia
- What determines the price of carbon in the ETS? Why was it higher in 2008/9 than in 2007? Why has it fallen in recent months?
- Does it matter that the carbon price fluctuates with the business cycle?
- Explain whether it is better to allocate carbon credits free of charge or auction them.
- Assess whether or not the EU emissions trading scheme has been a success so far.
- Compare the relative merits of a cap-and-trade scheme with carbon taxes.
- What other alternatives are there to cap and trade and carbon taxes as means of curbing emissions? Compare their relative merits.
- What is the best means of curbing carbon emissions from shipping? Explain.
UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has concluded that the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not working as it should. Thanks to a total emissions cap that is too low in a time of recession, the carbon price has fallen. The result is that there is no longer sufficient of an incentive for firms to invest in green technology. As the Financial Times article (below) reports:
The committee has urged the government to consider other measures, such as a floor price for carbon dioxide emissions, which would provide industries with greater certainty over the price of carbon and help to ensure the system of pricing was effective.
The MPs said a price of €100 per tonne of CO2 could be necessary to encourage investment, compared with current prices of about €13.
So is the committee correct? Or is a low price of carbon merely temporary, with firms realising that the price will rise as the European economy recovers? The following articles examine the issues.
Carbon markets failing, say British MPs Financial Times, Fiona Harvey (8/2/10)
Carbon prices are going the wrong way Independent, David Prosser (8/2/10)
U.K. Lawmakers Call for Intervention in Carbon Market BusinessWeek, Catherine Airlie and Ewa Krukowska (8/2/10)
UK should press EU for tighter carbon caps Reuters, Nina Chestney (8/2/10)
MPs propose carbon tax to boost green investment Guardian, Terry Macalister (8/2/10)
As UK Cap and Trade Falters, Government May Prop Up Carbon Prices Environmental Leader (9/2/10)
EU ETS intervention call howled down CarbonPositive (9/2/10)
The role of carbon markets in preventing dangerous climage change Environmental Audit Committee
- Explain how the ETS works.
- What determines the price of carbon in the ETS? Why has it fallen in recent months?
- Compare the alternative policy approaches for encouraging green investment.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a floor price for carbon permits? What would be the effect on the balance of demand for and supply of premits?
- Discuss whether the total number of permits allocated should be reduced (i.e. the cap tightened).
- Compare the relative merits of giving the allocation of permits away with auctioning them.
- Compare the relative merits of a cap-and-trade system with green taxes.
In the second of the linked articles below, Andy Atkins, from Friends of the Earth, argues that the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has failed to make any substantial cuts is emissions and is creating the opportunity for carbon traders to become very rich in increasingly complex financial products based on carbon. “This risks the development of sub-prime carbon and financial crisis – with a double whammy this time of environmental catastrophe to match.” He thus argues for alternative methods of reducing carbon, such as green taxes, tough regulation and government investment in green technology
But is the ETS a failure? In the third article, Alexandra Galin, from the Carbon Markets & Investors Association, argues that the second phase of ETS (2008–12) is much more successful than the first (2005–7) and that substantial carbon reductions have been achieved. Her argument is that a carbon trading scheme’s success in cutting carbon emissions does not depend on the trading system, but on the tightness of the cap. In other words, in a ‘cap-and-trade’ system, it is the cap that reduces emissions; the trading simply achieves the reductions in the most efficient way.
Friends of the Earth attacks carbon trading (including video) Guardian, Ashley Seager (5/11/09)
Don’t let the reckless City trade carbon Guardian, Andy Atkins (5/11/09)
The European emissions trading scheme is now a success Guardian, Alexandra Galin (17/11/09)
Storm could follow calm in EU carbon market Reuters, Nina Chestney (11/11/09)
Carbon market clouded by uncertainty BBC News, Damian Kahya (11/11/09)
See also: Gathering momentum on tackling climate change? (May 2009 blog)
Details of the European Emissions Trading Scheme can be found at:
Emission Trading System (EU ETS) European Commission, Environment DG
- Explain how the European Emissions Trading Scheme works.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the ETS as a means of reducing carbon emissions?
- Compare theses advantages and disadvantages with those of green taxes.
- How does the market price of carbon traded within the scheme reflect the toughness of the policy? What else might the price reflect?
- What is likely to happen to the carbon price in the coming months? Explain.
Until changes in their governments, both the USA and Australia were unwilling to sign up to the Kyoto Treaty on climate change. But things are changing. In both countries, cap and trade bills have been proposed by their administrations (see A changing climate at the White House). In the USA, President Obama’s bill would see the imposition of carbon quotas aimed at achieving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 of 17 per cent, with emissions trading allowing an efficient means of achieving this. In Australia, Kevin Rudd’s Labor government plans to introduce quotas and emissions trading in 2011 to achieve a 25 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.
But are there lessons to be learned from the European Emissions Trading scheme? The following articles look at some of the issues.
Cap-and-trade off Houston Chronicle (23/5/09)
US climate change bill passes key hurdle Telegraph (22/5/09)
Obama climate change bill defies Republicans to pass key committee Guardian (22/5/09)
Cap and Trade Debate CNN (video) (22/5/09)
Historic emissions trading scheme bills tabled Sydney Morning Herald (14/5/09)
A pattern behind fire and flood Sydney Morning Herald (25/5/09)
Interview with Australian Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong ABC (21/5/09)
Can Copenhagen achieve much? ABC PM programme (includes link to audio) (20/5/09)
Plunging price of carbon may threaten investment Independent (9/2/09)
EU ETS emissions fall 3% in 2008 Environmental Expert (18/5/09)
European investors call for carbon trading revamp businessGreen (20/5/09)
The carbon scam 21st Century Socialism (19/5/09)
Economy and the environment: growing pains Guardian (17/5/09)
European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Defra: emissions trading
- Discuss the merits and problems of cap-and-trade systems for reducing carbon emissions in an efficient and effective way.
- Is the price of carbon a useful indicator of the success or otherwise of cap-and-trade schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
- In what ways does the current recession (a) aid, and (b) hinder the introduction of tougher schemes to tackle global warming?